Legislature passes bill banning admissions discrimination

FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AP) — The Virginia General Assembly on Wednesday passed a watered-down version of legislation that bans racial discrimination in admissions at Virginia’s highly regarded Governor’s Schools.

The House of Delegates voted 63-35 in favor of the legislation, which already passed the state Senate. It now goes to Gov. Glenn Youngkin for his signature — he identified the bill as one of his legislative priorities at the start of the session.

“The governor looks forward to signing the legislation. This legislation reaffirms that admissions should be based on merit,” Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter said in a statement. “The governor will work everyday to ensure that every student across Virginia has a quality education so they can dream big dreams and be prepared for success in life,” Porter said.

The legislation, sponsored by Republican Del. Glenn Davis, was introduced after a battle over admissions at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, a Governor’s School that is often ranked as the best public high school in the country.

The Fairfax County School Board, with the support of state officials, changed the admissions policies in 2020 amid criticism that the Black and Hispanic students were woefully underrepresented in the student body.

The school board scrapped a standardized test that had been at the heart of the admissions process. It opted instead for a process that sets aside slots at each of the county’s middle schools. It also includes “experience factors” like socioeconomic background.

A parents’ group sued in federal court, claiming Asian Americans, who constituted more than 70% of the student body at TJ, were unfairly targeted in the new policy.

The school’s current freshman class, which was admitted under the new policy, saw a significantly different racial makeup. Black students increased from 1% to 7%; Hispanic representation increased from 3% to 11%. Asian American representation, meanwhile, decreased from 73% to 54%.

Last month, a federal judge ruled in the parents’ favor, saying that impermissible “racial balancing” was at the core of what motivated the changes, even though on their face the new admissions criteria are race-neutral.

The bill, as originally written, would have banned such “proxy discrimination,” meaning facially neutral criteria implemented for the purpose of favoring or disfavoring a particular race or sex.

The amended bill struck all that language and simply states that racial discrimination will not be allowed in admissions. Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen, who authored the change, said courts can decide what constitutes discrimination. He acknowledged that the bill will have little practical effect but sends an important statement nonetheless.

Democratic Sen. Scott Surovell, who fought for years to reform the admissions policies at TJ, criticized the legislation during floor debate Tuesday.

“I understand this whole issue is taking on a lot of symbolic importance … but it’s disappointing to me because taxpayers are paying for this and every child ought to be able to have a chance to get in,” he said.

A court hearing is scheduled for Friday on the school board’s request to delay the judge’s ruling from taking effect while the school board considers an appeal.

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